4 user states to consider in your onboarding design process

If you’ve been following my first time UX work, you know I advocate the creation of onboarding experiences that provide guided interaction, free samples and a personal focus. The value of this educational effort doesn’t stop at new customers. When we build onboarding experiences with other user states in mind, we can create a versatile platform for continued education and engagement.  This makes it easier to convince your team to invest in onboarding, and beyond.

In this post, I’ll share 4 user states that are important to consider when building user education. Use these as starting points to help you plan a user education platform that can support your customer’s lifespan.

New customers

I’ve focused the bulk of my first time UX work on this user state. These folks are entirely new to your product or service. While they may have an inkling of what your product does, they don’t otherwise have experience with your value proposition.

What they need

  • To interact with your value proposition easily and quickly
  • A reason to convert to a registered/paying customer

Recognizing them

While inferring users are new customers based on activity would be easiest, some platforms and locales make this difficult. Other product types (such as hardware devices) may not even have standardized techniques. Below is a non-exhaustive list of options:

  • On websites, you can look at cookies and sessions to see if a user has visited in the past. Note that some countries have laws regarding cookie consent. And if the user has reset cookies, or visited on another device, these will not be helpful.
  • In an app, you can tell if the user is opening it for the first time after install, and you can check credentials like UUID or application identifiers to see if it was previously installed on her device. This is not perfect, however, as it is possible that the customer has used your product or service on another device.
  • Check referral sources and links. For example, a new user may connect to your product via a link in a first time customer promotional email.
  • If all else fails, you can always have the user declare her state. On a website you might have messaging that leads new customers down a “getting started” path. In an app, you could display a new user gateway by default, but display “skip” or “log in” buttons for existing users.


  • Don’t rely on a new user creating an account to identify her state. You want to identify her as a new customer before that, because many potential customers will leave if they’re required to sign up first.
  • Looking at referral entry points can be a good indication of the new user’s goal when she visits your product. For example, if the new user was referred by a friend and has a discount code, she may need a flow tailored to her desire to redeem her prize.

This example from Julep shows how new users may enter your product through a referral trigger

Existing customers joining you on a new platform

These users are currently active and may already have accounts, but have decided to access your product through a new channel, such as downloading an app for a website service, or adding another fitness tracker to an existing health platform.

What they need

  • Ability to quickly pick up their expected tasks with this new channel
  • Frustration-free education on any differences between the new channel and their previous channel(s) of use

Recognizing them

  • In some cases, checking referral sources can work for this customer type. For example, an existing customer might have been directed to a mobile web app through a promotional email link that was generated for users of the desktop website. Note that this scenario does not work if you want to track the user’s state through the new app installation process. You can only deep link into already-installed apps.
  • If the user is adding a new device to an existing suite of products, a Bluetooth connection or getting the devices on the same WiFi network can indicate that he has previous experience.
  • In many cases, an existing user will declare himself by choosing to skip any onboarding flows or logging in.


  • Don’t frustrate these users by putting them through an experience aimed at new customers.  Have a “skip” or “log in” action available.
  • Instead of bombarding the existing user with education about the new channel, app or device, let him opt in to that education. One way you can do this is by building rich, on demand help content

The Elevate apps lets existing users skip the onboarding flow via a log in option at the bottom of the screen

Existing customers who need to be educated on new or undiscovered features

Unlike the previous state, these existing users are having change thrust upon them. Perhaps they are being asked to migrate to new functionality, new features have been added, or, through testing, your team has determined that existing users are unaware of features that are key to their satisfaction.

What they need

  • Awareness of new features or migration to a new experience, with minimal impact to workflow.
  • Help discovering unknown features that could be critical to their needs.

Recognizing them

  • Cookies and app version identifiers can let you know if a user is visiting your site or app for the first time after an update. This allows you to know what has changed for her since her last activity.
  • Check if this user has been searching in your help sections for certain features, which can indicate things she wasn’t aware of.
  • Provide links to let the existing user opt in to new designs or workflows, which is another signal that she is new to the experience.


  • Avoid the “what’s new” barrage. Many products display a modal dialog with a long list of feature updates or a series of sequential tooltip overlays. Instead, consider how to educate the user gradually, and based on her history with certain features.
  • Existing users will be more established in their patterns of use, and thus more reluctant to change. For new designs that require migration, consider some of the takeaways by Hendrik Müller in this presentation about change aversion.

Etsy lets existing users opt in to, and out from, new features and education

Lapsed, or lapsing, customers

These are users that once used your product, but have since been inactive or are growing less active. You might be proactively reaching out to them to re-engage, or they may have chosen to return based on another trigger.

 What they need

  • A way to pick up where they left off, with a refresher on things they used to use, and education on anything that has changed since their last activity.

Recognizing them

  • Check activity logs and unique identifiers to know if a specific user has been inactive for a specific period of time.
  • Checking app identifiers can also let you know if an app was installed, uninstalled, and then installed again.
  • Once again, referral links can be helpful. A lapsed user might have gotten re-engaged by a promotional coupon or reminder email.  Knowing how he was re-engaged can help you better target his education.


  • Depending on time since last activity, a lapsed/lapsing user may need anything from a basic refresher to an onboarding experience for new workflows. Use the gap in time since his last use, as well as the last activities he logged, to help you determine the extent of the education he needs.
  • Plan to provide education to a lapsed/lapsing user via multiple channels. If you’re trying to get him to reinstall a deleted app, you’ll need to justify why in email or other outreach methods.
  • Don’t assume that this user will remember his username or password. Always offer an easy way for him to retrieve his credentials.
  • It’s always best to prevent users from lapsing in the first place. Your product team should define timeframes for re-engaging users before they fully lapse

The 7 Minute Workout app uses notifications to re-engage users


Considering new users, existing users, and lapsing users in your plan for onboarding education can help you build a platform that is flexible enough to support many different customer needs.  Even if you do not design the entire system up front, simply having ideas written down will make these conversations easier when your product matures.

These user states are not a substitute for doing detailed customer research for your specific product or service, but they can be used to help you recruit participants for your studies.